The word “worry” comes from an Old English word meaning “to strangle.” We are all familiar with the of feeling worry. At times, worry can feel oppressive, uncontrollable, all-consuming, and suffocating.
In a recent virtual talk called “Facing Pandemic Fear with an Awake Heart,” Tara Brach, a renowned American Psychologist, author, and meditation teacher, taught us that although fear is a natural response to a threat, it can spiral out of control and turn into painful worry and anxiety.
As Brach put it, “Fear is utterly natural and appropriate when we’re facing danger and loss. It’s nature’s protector. It’s telling us to take good care. It [fear] is an intelligent part of us, but so often when it comes up, there’s a sense of ‘oh, I shouldn’t be experiencing this…there’s something wrong with me for feeling fear’ and a sense that we should just try to get rid it.”
When we try to avoid the fear, turn away from, hide or run from it, it can feel much less tolerable each time it rears its head, and can lead us into a feeling of overwhelm – panic, anxiety, incessant worry, etc. Brach suggests instead to “attend and befriend” our fear.
An understanding of what happens in our brains when we get to the point of overwhelm can help us to create individualized strategies to do this.
When fear turns into overwhelming anxiety and worry, the lower or more primal regions of our brains take over, which are responsible for basic functions as well as impulses and emotions. This means that the functions of the higher region of our brains, the cortex, can be more difficult to access.
The cortex is responsible for things like:
- language and speaking
- awareness of ourselves, others and the environment
- ability to respond vs. react
- nervous system regulation
- present moment awareness of our senses and emotions
When the cortex is functioning well, we’re more likely to be able to slow ourselves down, think before we act, regulate our emotions, self-soothe, and to be able to hold and witness our experiences without becoming flooded by them.
The good news is that we can actively stimulate the cortex to calm the lower regions of our brains when they’ve taken over, which can help us to stay grounded amidst the chaos and fear.
The first thing you want to do before engaging in any of the practices is to slow down and stop. As Brach says, “Create a clearing in the dense forest of your life.”
Slowing down and stopping can be as simple as taking some deep breathes. If worry is an experience of being “strangled,” the antidote is to breathe. Try using a breathing bubble such as this, try box breathing or simply place your hands on your belly and breathe into them.
Once you’ve done this, now what you want to do is actively stimulate the cortex which will help you to nurture your ability to witness and hold whatever you’re feeling without being overwhelmed. This can be anything that engages one or more of the functions of the cortex as listed above. Here are some practices you can try:
If any of these practices bring up more anxiety or overwhelm you, stop and try something else or come back to your calming breath. Only you know that works and doesn’t work for you.
Language, speaking and meaning-making
- Name your feelings without judgement – “I’m feeling fear” for example.
- Verbalize your feelings by talking it out with someone you trust.
- Put your feelings down on paper – write in your journal, write song lyrics or a poem expressing how you feel.
- Identify what’s in your control and what’s out of your control. Make a plan to do more of the things within your control (helping out a neighbour, taking care of yourself, etc).
- Identify what you’re learning through this time, how you’ve been able to adapt and the positive ways you’ve been able to cope with all the changes, fear and uncertainty so far. Identify other times in your life you’ve made it through challenging situations and feelings.
Present moment awareness of your senses and our emotions
- Become a curious explorer of your sensations – what does fear feel like in your body? Are you clenching your gut? Are you holding your breath? Does your heart feel heavy? Allow whatever is there to just be there
- Is there any place in your body that you don’t feel fear? Maybe a place that you feel okay, neutral or relaxed? See what it’s like to focus on this instead of the fear.
- Use paint, pastels, crayons, markers, whatever you have available to draw your emotions. This isn’t about being a great artist, it’s about recognizing, allowing and expressing your emotions while bringing in your ability to witness them as they are
- Do some colouring in a colouring book.
- Put your emotions into a dance or movement sequence.
- Sing how you’re feeling to the tune of a catchy pop song.
Awareness of the environment
- Use your senses to notice your surroundings. What do you see? What can you hear? Are there any smells? What about touch, what different textures can you find?
- Do you have a spot in your house where you feel comfortable? What about this space brings you comfort? See if you can take in this safety and comfort.
- Spend some time in nature. Leave your phone at home.
- Can you allow your chair, your bed, the floor to support you? Allow yourself to be held.
Be gentle and kind to yourself
- What would you say to a child or a friend who was feeling fear? What sorts of things would you offer them? Now say and do those things for yourself.
Connecting with and bringing awareness to others
- Check in on a friend or family member. Focus on listening to them and offering support. Holding space for others and finding compassion for others can help us to do the same for ourselves. It can also remind us that we’re not alone in this.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or worried and aren’t able to find support from any of these practices, consider reaching out for more support. Our Four County Crisis line is open 24/7: 705-745-6484 or toll-free 1-866-995-9933.